I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi, Naoko Takeuchi, or anything in the GURPS Ogre, GURPS Reign of Steel, and GURPS Tales of the Solar Patrol settings published by Steve Jackson Games. Everything else is mine.
Ranma's face was split by a wide grin when she dismounted from her swoop bike in one of the royal palace's garages, still riding the high from the front row seat she and Akane had shared of the most spectacular light show of her life! "Let's do that again!" she caroled, spinning in place as the others dismounted from their own swoop bikes.
Then the doors into the palace opened, those they'd left behind strode through, and Ranma found herself swept up into a hug by her big sister. "Yasuko, I was so scared!" Usagi whispered in her ear.
Ranma returned the hug. "Nothing ta worry about, big sis, though after that I'm never gonna get a thrill from fireworks again for life!" she said, squirming slightly as she looked around for the Mau advisers, then relaxing when she saw they were in their human forms. Stupid Cat Fist, she grumbled to herself. It was wonderful not to have to worry about ending up with a cat's mind and no memory of what she did, but she wished curing the Cat Fist had made the fear go away, as well.
Usagi laughed and let her go. Ranma looked around again to see Hotaru and Usa still being embraced by Michiru and Serenity. Usa was squirming. "Mom, I'm not a kid! I've been in fights a lot more dangerous than that."
"I know, and don't think I haven't lost sleep at night because of it," Serenity said with a sigh, "but I didn't actually have to watch any of those fights, knowing you were in the middle of it."
She reluctantly let go at the same time that Michiru released Hotaru, and Haruka stepped up to drape an arm around her adopted daughter's shoulder in a loose one-arm embrace even as she eyed the swoop bikes they'd ridden in on. "So, ready to give me a good race tomorrow?" she asked.
Hotaru shook her head, blushing faintly. "No, I'll never be as good as you, Haruka-papa," she said softly, then grinned. "But watch out for Ranma, she's great!"
"Ranma? Not Usa?" Haruka asked, glancing toward the pink-haired Musketeer.
Usa grimaced. "Yeah, Ranma," she grumped. "Freaking Miss Perfectionist, it's not natural!"
"Maybe now, but you should have seen her first jump," Akane said with a grin as she swung down from her bike to join her lover. "In fact, we had the bikes' cameras rolling, so you can see it in all its upside down and backwards glory, before she rolled down the hill."
Ranma blushed. "Okay, so it took me a few circuits to get the hang of things," she muttered.
As everyone else chuckled or giggled, Rei asked, "So, what was the light show all about? I thought Crystal Tokyo and the other crystal cities were utopias."
The levity instantly died. Serenity said, "We are. Nobody lacks food, clothing or shelter, and everyone that wants it — almost everyone — has work that matters, to someone at least. Unfortunately, you can't say the same thing about our neighbors. Edo, could you ask Ami to join us in my lounge?"
"Of course, Your Majesty."
Serenity smiled when the downtimers startled at the deep voice coming from empty air. "Edo is the artificial intelligence that manages the Crystal Tokyo mainframe. You haven't heard him before because the palace computers are separate from the rest of the city. Come on." She turned to stride toward the door to the palace. "While you've been having fun so has Ami, so I'm sure by now she can answer all your questions," she called back over her shoulder.
"Just like every other time," Usagi muttered as everyone hurried to catch up to the queen, and the fresh chuckles and giggles from those around her followed them out of the garage.
The room was silent as Ami finished her overview of the immediate future they had had to look forward to before The Day, when Ranma has remembered her past life. The next US presidential election and the victory of a man that proved to be as ruthless as any Hitler or Stalin, if more sane and practical. Of his nuclear annihilation of Mecca along with every major city throughout most of the Islamic world and North Korea, and his conquest of Canada and Mexico. The resulting thirty years of cold war between the United States and its allies and 'protectorates' versus the Paneuropean Union and its allies and 'protectorates' while in Japan traditionalists rose to power and established a new Empire of Japan. The decade of war between the US and Paneurope when the cold war turned hot, while the Empire of Japan attempted to conquer China. How the worldwide bloodbath finally ending in the collapse of all three Powers from exhaustion, and strategic overreach in the case of the US and Japan, and the rise of the artificial intelligences known as the Zoneminds in the chaos leading to the Reign of Steel.
"In the end, for this timeline it took another four decades — and the deaths of Michiru and Haruka in the last attack on the Tokyo Zonemind — to overcome the last of the A.I.s, and by then the total human population would be some tens of millions and the Earth pushed to the edge of complete ecological collapse," Ami finished. "It took centuries for us to clean up most of the damage and Earth's population to recover to the point that we could move off-planet in any real numbers. Mercury had no survivors, of course, and Venus is now inhabited by primitive descendents of the insectoid and reptilian armies that Beryl summoned there, but we founded some colonies to exploit its natural resources and established trade relations with the descendants of the human survivors on Mars. We'd barely begun mining operations in the asteroid belt when the Empire of Jurai found us, and hammered us back to the few cities on Earth and the single city on the Moon powered by the heartstones we were able to scavenge from Moon Queendom ruins, and so able to produce shields capable of stopping the worst Jurai can throw at us. It's been a stalemate ever since, Jurai unable to penetrate the cities' shields and us unable to expand without more heartstones we lack the resources to create."
She fell silent, and the room seemed to sing with tension. Most of the downtimers were looking at Michiru and Haruka on the couch where they were sitting with Hotaru cuddled between them clutching their hands, but Usagi's eyes were flitting between her Setsuna, Princess Pluto, an Usa sitting between her parents but focused across the room on her best friend, and Serenity's sympathetic gaze. Finally focusing on Setsuna, Usagi said in a voice that shook, "A few days ago, the morning that the terrorists nuked London and the US cities, you said you couldn't tell us why this was necessary, yet — that there was something we needed to see, first. Have we seen it? Can you tell us now?"
Setsuna and Princess Pluto exchanged glances, before Setsuna nodded with a sigh. "Yes, I can." She reached up to rub her face. "There's no way to prevent the devastation of the Islamic world," she said. "Whatever we do, the only questions are how long it will take and whether it will be by nuclear attack, invasion, civil war, or more likely some mix of the three. The Islamists are absolutely dedicated to their cause and absolutely ruthless, and have too much popular support throughout the Islamic world for anything else. The TV images of crowds in city after city celebrating the devastation in the United States and London we'll be seeing in the days after we return home will be proof enough of that — and the reason why in a few years most Americans will accept the nuclear destruction of those same cities, and more.
"Beyond that, maybe I could keep the cold war between the United States and the Paneuropean Union from going hot. Certainly, I could prevent the Reign of Steel — I know exactly which mainframe would spontaneously produce the Overmind, it was the Overmind that supplied the seeds that the other Zoneminds grew out of, and apparently nonmagical computers spontaneously waking up is a very rare event. With your help I could get us out into interplanetary space, and the first steps out into interstellar space. In fact, once we return home we'll be doing just that.
"But thanks to the United States, what I could not do was get us into space as a united Earth, and build an interstellar coalition strong enough to face down the Empire of Jurai when it arrives. The end result would be a devastating interstellar war that would end with us exactly where we are now, only with a death toll in the tens of billions. We'd end up playing Judaea to Jurai's Rome, and when Jurai finally tired of the constant low-level insurgency with the occasional open rebellion and bombarded us we'd have the same number of heartstones and so the same number of crystal cities, but a much larger Earth population, much too large to fit into those cities. And that doesn't include the casualties our allies would suffer in the initial conquest.
"No, the path I was guiding us along before Yasuko's awakening — that my counterpart, here, guided her Senshi along," she added with a nod to Princess Pluto, "to the rebuilt Moon Queendom, an interstellar realm of peace, security, freedom and justice, was the one with the fewest number of deaths, the least amount of suffering that had any real chance of success."
"Before my awakening? Why am I so important?" Ranma demanded. "I'm just a martial artist with the memories of a little princess of a dead queendom!"
"I can't tell you yet." Setsuna smiled wryly as everyone else except Princess Pluto groaned, and lifted a hand. "I'll be able to tell you soon, I promise, but not quite yet."
As the others grumbled, Usagi gazed suspiciously at her advisor for a long moment, started to speak, hesitated, and finally said, "Setsuna, the rendezvous point, where Princess Pluto met us, you said that was Tokyo at the point where nothing we did could make things worse. Just when was that?"
Setsuna instantly sobered. "That was the day when that timeline's Senshi and their allies finally succeed in subverting the Tokyo Zonemind — and the day that Haruka and Michiru are killed when they act as a diversion," she said softly.
"What!" Hotaru sat bolt upright between her adopted parents. "We have to help them!" Finding herself the focus of the shocked attention of everyone else in the room, the normally soft-spoken girl shrank back in her seat on the couch, but stubbornly repeated, "We have to … we can't let that happen."
"Of course we'll help, before returning home," Usagi said firmly, smiling as Haruka and Michiru hugged their daughter.
"And I'm going to help!" Usa asserted, leaping to her feet to turn and glare down at her parents. "No way are Hotaru, Ranma and Akane going into that kind of fight without me!"
Serenity winced and clutched at Endymion's hand, but her voice was calm as she replied. "Of course you are. In fact, after discussing it with Usagi and Mamoru we agreed that you could return with your friends."
"What?" Usa stared at her parents in shock for a long moment, before demanding suspiciously, "For how long?"
Serenity sighed, then let go of her husband's hand to rise to her feet. She placed her hands on her daughter's shoulders to hold Usa at arm's length and look her in the eye (and hide her shock as she realized that her daughter was as tall as she was — she'd already known, of course, but she hadn't known). "For as long as your friends need you," she replied. "As much as your father and I might wish otherwise you're an adult now, so whether you go and when you come home to stay is your decision."
From beside his wife, Endymion added, "Just remember that your parents will miss you. We'd appreciate it if you made it home for birthdays and vacations."
Usa's stunned gaze switched back and forth between her parents. Then, eyes tearing up, she stepped forward to throw out her arms and pull them both into a hug. "Love you, Mom, Dad," she whispered as they returned her embrace.
The three stood clutching each other in silence for long minutes until Usa finally, reluctantly broke the embrace. Wiping at wet cheeks as she turned to face Mamoru and her tear-shiny-eyed baka-mama, she asked, "So, when do we leave?"
Setsuna sat in the dark, in the suite she'd been assigned on their arrival, gazing out the floor-to-ceiling window at the light-speckled nighttime landscape of Crystal Tokyo. It was a city that she had admired in the Time Gates many times over the long centuries, whenever she'd needed strength to continue her mission, and one that would now no longer exist in her own timeline.
Months after the timeline shift with Ranma's awakening, she still had mixed feelings about that. The new future, while still hard, was so much brighter — but Crystal Tokyo had been her strength and driving purpose for so long that its sudden absence had left a … a hole in her soul. She was sure that void would fill as she adjusted to the new, happier future, but for now it left her feeling off-kilter whenever she dwelt on it.
Then the soft gong sounded that indicated someone was at her door, and she turned her chair around to face across her main room and called out, "Enter."
The door silently slid open, the light spilling into her suite from the corridor outlining Usagi — from the lack of long twin odangoed ponytails, her Usagi, rather than the Queen.
"Usagi, come in, have a seat," Setsuna invited. "I've been waiting for you." Her young friend came in, the door sliding closed, and flipped her long single braid across a shoulder to hang down between her breasts before dropping into the chair across a low table from Setsuna.
Setsuna reached for the room's controls on the side of her armrest and dialed up the room's lighting, and examined Usagi in the brighter light. Her young friend looked … pensive, wistful. "Princess, what's wrong?" Setsuna softly asked.
Usagi sighed, turning slightly to look out the window. After a long moment, she said, "All afternoon, while our counterparts have been telling us everything they remember about the day Haruka and Michiru were killed, I've been watching Usa with her parents — she didn't leave their sides all day. They really love each other."
Voice shaking, still staring out at the city lights, she asked, "I'm never going to have a little Usa of my own, now, am I?"
Setsuna remembered her own thoughts, just before her Princess had arrived. It seemed she wasn't the only one finding their happier future to be bittersweet.
"Princess ... Usagi, look at me." When the blonde girl turned to look at her advisor, eyes already wet, Setsuna said, "You are right, with our Crystal Tokyo gone, so is the little girl that would have been born in it. You and Mamoru will have children — lots of children — and one of them will be a little pink-haired hellion that you'll name Usagi, but she won't be our own Chibi-Usa. But our Chibi-Usa, the one tucked into bed with our living, breathing Firefly right now to help her keep the nightmares away, has grown into a magnificent young woman. And we'll be seeing a lot more of her than we would have, before."
"There is that, that's not so bad," Usagi agreed with a tremulous smile as she wiped at her eyes. "So ... lots of children, huh?"
Setsuna threw up her hands in mock horror. "Lots and lots! You may be a reincarnated princess with an important role to play in what's to come, but you're a homemaker at heart. Once we rediscover rejuvenation, you'll never be really happy without at least one child bouncing around the house. If Queen Serenity didn't have the same thing to look forward to in a few decades, she'd be insanely jealous." And some of those children will die fighting for our dream, as the young always have in nations where freedom and justice matter.
Usagi softly laughed. "Not so bad at all!" she repeated, her smile finally turning more natural.
"But no getting started right away!" Setsuna mock-scolded, shaking a finger at her princess. "It's going to be many decades before we start developing rejuvenation again, and you have a tendency to be impatient."
"I'm not that bad!" Usagi insisted through her laughter.
"Yes, you are," Setsuna disagreed instantly. "In fact," she continued, sobering, "I'm surprised you didn't insist we return to our rendezvous point in the morning, to help out the Senshi there."
Usagi shrugged. "Why? Don't we have all the time in the world?"
"Yes, we do, but you'd be surprised at how few people remember to take that into account when making plans," Setsuna replied. "Besides, more often than not your impatience is out of a desire to get unpleasant experiences over with, and after over six years you still hate the fighting."
Usagi shrugged again. "I'm not going to take Usa away from her parents on short notice just because I want to get another fight behind us. Besides ..." Her voice trailed away and she gazed thoughtfully at her advisor for a long moment, then continued, "Besides, after what we saw and learned today, I expect both little sis and our Firefly are going to have a bad night. If we're going into battle, we need them at their best. And they won't if they're groggy from nightmares and lack of sleep."
Setsuna stilled as she realized what Usagi's hesitation had been about — secrets. Rather, more secrets. Forcing herself to relax, she asked, "So, Yasuko told you about those, did she?"
Usagi shook her head. "No. Since when has Ranma been willing to admit weakness to anyone unless forced to it? Except Akane, perhaps — against all odds, that girl has been good for her. Certainly not what I expected after what I read in the file on his life you first gave us.
"You know, it's odd," she mused, leaning back in her chair. "Ranma doesn't look anything like she did as Yasuko. And a lot of the time, she doesn't act like her, either." She smiled wistfully, remembering a little five-year-old blonde practicing her puppy-dog eyes on her big sister as she importuned her for help with the homework from the first of her lessons. "Other times, like when she's scamming extra ice cream just like Yasuko used to wheedle extras from the chefs, she feels so much like my first little sis that 20th-century Tokyo feels ... surreal ... like a dream that I'll wake up from at any time to find myself back in bed in my suite in the palace on the Moon."
" 'First little sister' is a good way to look at it," Setsuna said, politely ignoring Usagi's sudden melancholy. "Remember, unlike you Senshi and Mamoru, her soul wasn't sent forward by your mother. Ranma had to get here the hard way, life by life over four thousand years. While she can't remember those lives, they have left their own imprint on her personality — her soul. Yes, her memories of her time as Yasuko will give that life more influence than any other of the rest, but those are still the memories of a six-year-old ... a handful of years against the twelve that Ranma can remember in this life, and the personality he was born with as a foundation. You really are better off thinking of her as Yasuko's daughter rather than Yasuko herself."
Usagi shook off her mood, and straightened to gaze sternly at Setsuna. "Perhaps. But still, she is my sister. So why did I learn of her nightmares — her new nightmares — from Elder Cologne, by telephone the day Ranma and Akane came back from the new Amazon village?"
"Because it was private, and not my secret to tell," Setsuna replied. She held up a hand to cut off Usagi's hot retort. "Yes, you're her big sister, in some ways you've been a better mother for her in the short time you've known her than Nodoka has, and if I'd learned of the nightmares any way other than the Time Gates I would have probably told you about them. But that's not how I learned. With the Time Gates it's much too easy to find out all sorts of things people wouldn't want spread around. That's why I have my rule on privacy — if it doesn't advance our greater cause and no one's life or health is threatened, whatever I learn through the Time Gates that is personal stays that way. Even from their families — often especially from their families."
Usagi closed the mouth she'd opened for her retort, thoughts of some of her more embarrassing private moments flashing through her mind. Finally, she reluctantly nodded. "I can't disagree with that," she admitted. "But you're also keeping secrets that aren't personal. I'm supposed to be the Princess ... however much I complain about it sometimes," she added with a flashing grin at Setsuna's choked off snort. "What we learned today shouldn't have been a surprise to me, and you obviously still have secrets about the part little sis is going to play that you haven't told me — or even her. Don't you get tired of being the Keeper of Secrets?" (Setsuna winced slightly at the capital letters she could hear in the title her princess had just bestowed on her.) "Just after the final showdown with the Confederacy, I asked if we could get by without the Time Gates' view of the future, and you said maybe in a few years. How many is a 'few'?"
Setsuna lifted an eyebrow at the question, then spent a few minutes thinking as Usagi fidgeted. Finally, the emerald-haired woman replied, "I'd say ... around fifteen, more or less, if I give them up at all. But for after that, I've been considering compromise — the largest 'Choose Your Own Path' adventure in the history of the world, with the major branches laid out for the next thousand years along with the percent chance of each and perhaps a list of possible actions on our part to favor one branch over another. That would give us much of the benefits of the Time Gates' capability to see the possible futures, while weaning me away from micromanaging them."
Usagi rose to her feet and struck a stiff mock-military pose. "That is an excellent idea, make it so," she ordered pompously, then giggled. "Now, I'll let you get to bed. You're sleeping and eating for two, don't forget, and I expect you to take good care of yourself."
She strode to the door, then paused and turned around as it slid open. "But tomorrow, we're going to find some private time and you're finally going to tell me all about your plans for my little sister," she warned sternly, then smiled. "Good night." And she was gone, door sliding closed behind her, leaving behind a suddenly thoughtful Senshi of Time.
There is a little of my own opinions sneaking into this story, where it comes to the international scene. First, whatever one's opinion on the claims of wrongs suffered by the Islamic world thanks to the West, the Islamists are dead set on becoming the dominant power in the world and have no problem slaughtering whomever they have to in order to achieve that, of any nationality, ethnicity, and religion. While 'soft' methods and overreach can certainly undercut their popular support, the only thing that is going to stop the hardcore fanatics is bloody violence — the only question is who applies the violence, local co-religionists or the West, and how surgically focused the counterattack is. That does not mean that I approve of a "nuke them all, God will recognize His own" strategy, I don't.
Second, the chances of any sort of effective world government is essentially zero so long as the United States are a world power. Whatever the claims made by pundits and activists, the United States are not an empire. We are close to what the Roman Republic had, but even there we lack the permanence of what the Romans had evolved centuries before they acquired an emperor. At most we have a protectorate, and one our allies are free to leave whenever they choose (as demonstrated by France when it left NATO and the Philippines when it demanded we abandon our military bases there). No, whatever envisioned by at least one SF writer that had the nations of the Earth changed to US states and a senator from Australia running for president, the US will not evolve into a world government. However, neither will the US accept the domination of a foreign world government, and we have the power to make the rejection stick. So anyone wanting to postulate a future world government needs to deal with the US one way or another. No, I don't think what I described here is a possible destiny of the US, Europe, or the Islamic world, but I also don't think we are ever going to get a world government, either.